This is the first part of our series about the menopause based on our booklet “Fast Facts for Patients: Menopause”, which is freely available online. This article focuses on what the menopause is and what is happening to the hormones during this transition.
First, the Facts …
- The menopause is your last menstrual period. It marks the end of your reproductive years and the start of a new phase of life.
- Many women experience symptoms as they near the menopause – this time of life is known as the perimenopause or menopause transition.
- The average age at which women start the menopause transition is 46 years. Periods usually stop by the age of 51.
- The most common symptoms are heavy bleeding, hot flushes, night sweats, emotional instability, vaginal dryness and bladder problems. Symptoms can range from mild to debilitating.
- Much can be done to help with symptoms during the menopause transition, including lifestyle changes, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and treatments for individual symptoms.
- For women under 60 years of age who are in good health, the benefits of HRT far outweigh any risks.
The menopause is specifically your last menstrual period. However, the word menopause is widely used to describe the time around this event when many women experience symptoms. This is more accurately known as the perimenopause. It can be thought of as the menopause transition (gradual change) from the reproductive years to the postmenopausal years.
During the menopause transition, the amount of oestrogen produced by the ovaries changes. Instead of having a regular menstrual cycle, it becomes unpredictable. The changing levels of oestrogen cause symptoms, such as heavy bleeding, hot flushes, night sweats, emotional instability, vaginal dryness and bladder problems.
Perimenopausal means the time around the menopause (“peri” means “around”). This period of menopause transition is the gradual change as your periods stop through to 12 months after your last period.
Postmenopausal means the time from 12 months after your last period (“post” means “after”).
What Is Happening with My Hormones?
During Your Reproductive Years
The menstrual cycle is a complex process, regulated by hormones.
When you are born, your ovaries contain lots of eggs (ova). From puberty, most of the time an egg matures each month and is released. This process is controlled by two hormones that are released by the pituitary gland – follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinising hormone (LH). FSH and LH also stimulate the ovaries to produce the hormones oestrogen and progesterone.
If the egg is not fertilised, levels of progesterone and oestrogen decrease and the lining of the womb is shed – this is your period.
The Menopause Transition
As you get older, your ovaries may not release an egg in every cycle. As a result, levels of both oestrogen and progesterone vary unpredictably.
These unpredictable hormone levels cause the symptoms of the menopause transition. During this time, the lining of the womb may become too thick and is shed in a disordered way, resulting in irregular, heavy periods.
After the Menopause
After the menopause, oestrogen levels are very low and women generally experience fewer symptoms – although some women continue to have symptoms such as hot flushes.
Most importantly, the falling level of oestrogen increases the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and osteoporosis. Lack of oestrogen also affects the condition of the vaginal and bladder tissues.
These are important issues to consider, regardless of your symptoms during the menopause transition, because you could live for 30 years in the postmenopausal period.
Understand the menopause transition and how it may affect you with this handy information sheet. Share it with friends and family, and use it to discuss your symptoms with your doctor.
Please check out the previous and the next post of our series here:
- Menopause: Frequently Asked Questions about Hormone Replacement Therapy
- Menopause: Other Reasons than Natural Ageing
Information based on Fast Facts for Patients: Menopause (Karger, 2021).